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Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Robert Maillet, Kelly Reilly

Written By: Michael Robert Johnson (also story), Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg, Lionel Wigram (story)

Directed By: Guy Ritchie

The Short Version

The character of Sherlock Holmes is reinvented, and yet not so much as you might think.

In Guy Ritchie’s world, “static” is something that happens to radio reception and not his directorial style.

This movie is very well cast.

The game really is afoot in a movie that plays like a ride with intelligent content.

Sherlock Holmes is fun, adventurous, and much better than one might expect.  Own it.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Served by an exasperated Mrs. Hudson, no doubt.

Pairs Well With...


Not a pint of the stuff to be found in this movie, but let’s face it, it’s what this Sherlock Holmes seems best suited to drink.

“Data, data, data!  I cannot make bricks without clay.”

Question: What happens when one tries to reinvent the character of Sherlock Holmes for a modern audience?

Answer: If one turns out to be Guy Ritchie – and company – then one not only does a surprisingly good job of it, but at the same time, brings the man closer to his roots than he’s been in years while making you think he’s out for a joyride.

All you have to do is try to keep up.

Above and beyond all else, the primary fact of the case with regard to Sherlock Holmes is this: the movie is a lot of fun, and isn’t that the whole point of movies?

But first, the story!

As we begin, we find ourselves on a merry chase through Victorian London.  Our goal is to stop a hideous rite of human sacrifice from being performed.  Ostensibly, those who seek to prevent this act are the good men of the London police, but the vanguard of this assault is comprised of none other than the famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man), and his faithful assistant, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law, Gattaca).  As befitting the spirit of adventure, these two noble men prevent the evil deed from occurring before the police force can even arrive, though charitably, Holmes still insists that said police and the good Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan, Miami Vice), get the credit.  For Holmes, the best reward is that the victim is safe, and the evil culprit, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, Green Lantern), is arrested and given an appointment with the hangman.

Flash forward three months.  Holmes has not found a case worthy of his attention since the Blackwood affair, and he is growing restless.  No doubt that he is additionally out of sorts due to the fact that his friend Watson is moving out of their Baker Street lodgings so that he may be with his intended, Mary (Kelly Reilly, Eden Lake).  But Holmes needn’t worry; he’ll have plenty to do soon enough.  Blackwood is indeed finally hanged, but then appears to rise from the dead and get back to his old tricks.  Coincidentally, Holmes also is called upon by his old acquaintance Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, The Time Traveler’s Wife), and it quickly becomes obvious that these events are quite related.  Now Holmes needs to figure out Blackwood’s game before all of England falls victim to his sinister plan, whatever that plan might be…

I was surprised at first when it was pointed out to me that prior to the release of this film, Sherlock Holmes hadn’t made it onto a big screen in North America for over two decades.  After all, he’s one of the most often-adapted characters in all of cinema.  Many a man has taken a turn at the role over the course of literally almost a hundred years, from John Barrymore to Basil Rathbone to Peter Cushing (still the best) and more.  Indeed, one of the first pictures to come out of Thomas Edison’s own production company was a Sherlock Holmes adaptation.  And yet, a drought there had been, so now, director Guy Ritchie and his cohorts were looking to turn the character on his ear for a new millennium… or were they?

No cloistered man of pure intellect, this Sherlock Holmes is a man of action who can handle himself in a physical altercation… just as Conan Doyle’s Holmes could as an accomplished martial artist, though if one want s to be picky, this movie relies on a different martial art.  (Oh, and the bare knuckle boxing match is also as Conan Doyle reference.)

Not one to believe that intoxicants poison the mind, this Sherlock Holmes seems well acquainted with them… as was Conan Doyle’s Holmes, a cocaine addict.  (When Watson refers in this film to Holmes taking something meant for eye surgery, that’s what he means; cocaine was at one time used for that purpose.)

Presaging Elvis Presley, this Sherlock Holmes sees fit to shoot the letters VR (“Victoria Regina” = Queen Victoria) into his wall… as related in “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Hmm.  I daresay that I’m detecting a pattern here.  The deerstalker may be gone, but the offhanded intellectualism and flashes of dry wit… by Jove, it does seem quite familiar, at that!

Perhaps this stuff that’s supposed to make Holmes more relatable to modern audiences isn’t so much of a stretch after all.

Nor is the casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as much of a stretch as some initially feared it was.  In fact, he does a superb job in the role.  Conquering the English accent to a reasonable degree, he delivers the rapid fire intellectual discourse of Holmes as though it is not merely second nature, but first.  He gives us all the mental prowess of Sherlock Holmes plus his rediscovered capacity for physicality, but just as importantly, he gives Holmes his humanity.  For all of his gifts, Holmes is at the end of the day an outsider whom few can understand, and if Downey can be credited for putting his own personal signature on the role in way that no others do before him, that is how he does it.  Downey’s Holmes is indeed larger than life, but he is also more than human.  Look behind the expression after he gets wine tossed in his face at dinner and you’ll see it quite clearly.  It’s a surprisingly profound moment.

Also getting a makeover from his traditional movie image is Dr. Watson, and again, the characterization presented in the film isn’t as far off from Conan Doyle’s as one might think after watching so many semi-squat older men play the part.  Watson is, after all, a distinguished war veteran, and accompanied Sherlock Holmes on adventures not just as a friend and a medical man, but also as muscle.  The real Watson was neither doddering nor fearful, and so neither is the one portrayed by Jude Law.  He is perhaps a bit more forthright with Holmes on a more regular basis than one might expect, but that part of the update works very well, and in a gesture that cannot help but bring to mind the better “buddy cop” movies of the 1980s, the partnership works.

Of course, that partnership takes on a very strong flavor of bromance in Sherlock Holmes, and while it doesn’t hit the level of unintended homoeroticism reached by Top Gun, it’s pretty hard not to pick up, and for some, it can be a distraction.  I will say that it is poured on a bit thick (though it’s certainly not homoerotic; it is, rather, the angst of best friends, one of whom is socially adept enough to have a life outside that friendship – Watson – and one of whom has so few social connections that losing his most powerful one is devastating), but it’s played for enough fun to be forgivable within its surroundings.

And now that we’re on the partner subject, the inclusion of Irene Adler will invariably bring one of two reactions: you love it or you hate it.  Without question, this story plays her up far more than Conan Doyle ever did – she only appeared once – but in its defense, this script is positively tame in that regard compared to what other writers who’ve picked up the mantle since Conan Doyle have done.  She is, quite simply, a fan and author favorite, and Sherlock Holmes can hardly be blamed for hopping on that particular popularity train.  For her own part, Rachel McAdams holds up, though she’s not quite a match for what her costars bring to the table.

Faring more strongly, surprisingly, is Kelly Reilly is what one would assume to be the thankless part of the soon-to-be Mrs. Watson.  She has few scenes, to be sure, but when she does appear, she makes quite an impact.  There is definite presence there, and she’s certainly one to keep an eye on.

By now we’ve strayed from the beaten path of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; however, we’ve also seen that whatever else happens, the core is still intact.  Holmes is recognizably Holmes.  Watson is recognizably Watson.  The essentials are there, and the chemistry is there.  At this point, Sherlock Holmes has already done more than most adaptations bother with in terms of keeping true to its roots.  From here on in, Guy Ritchie can have at it.

And damn, does he ever.  He kept the character and he kept the setting; what he changed was the style.  This brings us back to our original fact of this case: Sherlock Holmes is fun.

Though stepped in Victoriana, Sherlock Holmes is a thoroughly modern adventure; frenetically paced steampunk without the omnipresence of gear-driven tech or automata.   Ritchie directs the action in grand style, always in motion and leaving the static shots to other people.  There are indeed explosions, but not so many as to insult the intellectual roots of our hero, and when they happen, they make sense.  There are chases and dashing feats of derring-do that certainly outpace anything the original author ever came up with, but, well, something was going to be updated here, wasn’t it?  And at that point, a modernization of the adventure’s framework is certainly a fine place to accomplish that task.  (Props must also be given to Hans Zimmer, whose score for the film beautifully evokes both modern adventure and period-style cues.)

And yet, even in this modern adventure, our villain is thoroughly a man of his times, reflecting both the culture and the conspiracy theories of the age quite well.  (Of course, the group he represents is Most Certainly Not The Freemasons; no, the Temple of the Four Orders has a completely different name.  cough)  Lord Blackwood makes for quite the suitable villain indeed.  He is a match for Holmes while not being either his Doppelganger or his complete opposite; instead, he is his own creature with similar prowess.  It’s also refreshing that Sherlock Holmes waits to bring in Moriarty as the ultimate foe for a future occasion rather than blowing the entire stack at once.

Though of course, Sherlock Holmes does make sure to tell us that there will be another occasion, and that Moriarty will be there for it.  If one thing is easier to deuce from this movie than anything else, it is the fact that it was built to kick start a franchise.  And at that task, I must say that it succeeds rather well, for Sherlock Holmes is just too much fun to allow to lie by itself.  This is another point in its favor: Sherlock Holmes is a story that makes the audience want to see it continue.  So often in modern filmmaking, the expectation of the sequel is there even without the evocation of desire; here, though, how can you not want to see more?

Bottom line, Sherlock Holmes is a modern adventure that stays true to the roots of its characters and brings everything together in a fun, entertaining way that leaves the viewer both excited and wanting more.  What else can one ask of an adventure film?  This one’s fun enough to watch over and over again, and definitely worth owning.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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